The high cost of freedom

  • Published
  • By Maj. Todd Riddle
  • 303rd Fighter Squadron
I like chocolate cake. Sour cream chocolate cake with thick greasy frosting and a tall glass of cold milk is a staple of our family celebrations. Birthdays, anniversaries, graduation parties, weddings and the like. I have missed a few dozen of these occasions to share my favorite dessert while deployed over the years.

Last June I was not thinking about the chocolate cake my family was preparing to have at my son's 3rd birthday, my wife's birthday or at a family wedding I had been asked to officiate. Half a globe away, I was knifing the nose of my A-10 fighter jet through a narrow canyon valley in Afghanistan. Through a hail storm. My jet and I were flying at 400 miles per hour supporting an attacked convoy of American soldiers on the ground near the Pakistan border. One of their vehicles had been crippled by a roadside bomb. Their signal intercepts told them that 100 enemy Taliban were massing for an ambush. There was urgency in the voices speaking to me over the radio as the ground troops confronted the highest cost of freedom; their own lives. 

I flew through a thunderstorm. I dove out of the clouds toward the earth. The windscreen cracked. The jet shuddered and pitched violently through the dark sky and turbulent air. I raced back up alongside the mountains back into the clouds. A second windscreen crack occurred as I pointed the nose out of the valley and back to the clear weather. I flew the emergency jet home; a jet that was full of softball size hail damage, destroyed weapons sensors, lights, and sheet metal. Friends said I should get a medal. The group commander said I was grounded pending an investigation and that the damaged jet looked 'expensive'. 

Freedom has high costs that warriors pay that don't make the news or Hollywood storylines. Warriors live a life of intense community and speak a fraternal language that laughing loved ones admire but struggle to comprehend. Real time life and death decisions are reviewed by men in offices' with no windows under a 'freeze frame' level of scrutiny driven by concerns about money and 'metrics' of performance. 

A warrior makes choices in efforts to save other men's lives; decisions that may cost a career. The people you love most wonder why you go back, why place yourself in harm's way when it is someone else's turn to go? How many events and slices of cake will you miss this time? How many intimate opportunities to mold your own family will be left for someone else? 

Willingness to remain in the battle is the high cost of freedom...and with that pride, honor and commitment to freedom rally to pay the bill. Warriors willingly make tough decisions in the face of challenging hindsight, warriors pray and prepare their families for separations. Standing in the fight, and still standing in the 'Long War', leaving second guesses and chocolate cake to others, is the high cost of freedom.